The Writing Life (6) Why the Web?

Photo Credit: Tom Sandler

Today, I thought I’d share with you some thoughts about work at the bottom end of the pay scale—and, in particular, commissions or the work we do of our own volition for the web. Most of us are getting more and more of these sorts of jobs or feeling compelled to try. Those who aren’t, or who are just starting in the writing business, should, to my mind, make a point of considering web work and at the very least be excited at the prospect of it.

For some time now I have been telling friends and colleagues that era of the web as a consumer’s paradise but concomitant producers’ purgatory of unpaid work and plagiarized material is bottoming out, that we are about to see the revenue paradox of the internet sorted; newspapers, magazines, broadcasters but also websites and web-originated suppliers of content will thrive.

No more founded than a hunch, I can see the day coming, possibly quite soon, when YouTube will start charging a subscription fee and, as I have argued, once that happens then faster than the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact after the fall of the Berlin Wall, you will see many companies start to charge for material and the trickle-down effect of these companies finally being able—and wanting—to pay their producers. Content will be king again.

Already, the New York Times, the Times of London and the Financial Times are charging or working out schemes to charge for content. Rupert Murdoch of News International is applying more and more pressure on governments to penalize those who pinch material. At the same time, the story of the proverbial blogger from nowhere who storms the media landscape with his or her ingenuity is becoming a bit of a myth. In truth, most of the best and most successful bloggers are already attached to established sites.

There is also a return of the division of labour that web technology had pushed to the side for a while, meaning writers write and other people to do the uploading and design. We are returning, despite the seeming democracy of the web, to a publishing situation in which certain people have certain abilities and do certain jobs, and that is not altogether a bad thing.

(The iWeb program of my new Apple computer—the first time I have been disappointed by Apple technology, by the way, and in a number of ways—is actually remarkably pedestrian and has a deadening effect on the sort of initiative possibility that launched Apple up the ladder in the first place. It’s a leveling, mass market product that is good for them but not for me, and if I want to do better than what they offer, I’ll have to spend a lot of time learning and constructing or I can simply write and let someone else with better abilities do it—just as, short years ago, I would not have tried to publish and distribute my own newspaper just because I could write for one.)

This return to old patterns of organizing work is one of the reasons why brands such as the BBC, the New York Times or, here in Canada, the CBC or the Toronto Star, are establishing their primacy in the web domain. They’re still not making money from the web, not yet anyway, but the infrastructure to do so is there. Recently I spoke to the publisher of one major Canadian newspaper who confirmed that he had seen activity on his paper’s website increase just as I’d written in an earlier posting that on my own income from the internet had done—from about 1 to 8% of hits for him and income earned for me, this in just a couple of years, though the income that his paper was generating from the activity had not increased at all. But it will.

And if you are in doubt, ask yourself honestly (and perhaps tell me—this is the opportunity of a survey, after all): if YouTube did announce that it was available at a $1 or even $3 per month subscription, would you pay? I’d wager the answer would be “yes.” Wikipedia launched a fund-raising drive just over a year ago and raised over 6 million USD in a week. If you are even verging on answering ‘yes’ then you can bank on this sea-change happening and that will be good news for writers who, if they are enterprising, have all sorts of ways in which they can use the web to generate money even now.

It’s important, especially for folk who have been operating in the labour force for years or even decades to be able to forget the rites of their induction and to be able to enter this new market—the web—with the vigour, zeal and innocence of youth.

Now let me get back to my original point about why a writer might choose to write for the web for considerably less than he or she makes, say, from The Walrus or the CBC. I really should talk to KevinfromCanada, that voracious reader, about his motivations one day but I can tell you in the meantime that my own first reasons have little to do with most of the routine arguments that are put forward by all the web gurus and self-made internet enthusiasts plugging the benefits of the web’s so-called “culture of free”—this, the notion that there is hidden or postponed value in getting your name and your product (a book, a movie, an article) out there.

I do not believe this is true for most of us or, at least, not yet. A proper examination of the ‘Long Tail’ thesis that launched this idea of the web as infinite warehouse in fact shows that more and more attention is sucked up by fewer and fewer items of interest and that whatever you and I put out there is more likely with each passing day to be lost in an internet oblivion.

En tout cas.

If you are a writer, or call yourself one, then the thing you have to do the most, is write. We all have good days and bad days—I myself just came out of the slump I when I am not so under the gun that my work makes me forget the world around me (dirty looks from the family)—I’d say at least forty per cent of my week is spent not writing, and routinely as much as seventy per cent. That’s bad but it’s also normal. And it’s why jobs such as this one that may not pay a whole lot but that actually make you do the thing you say you are doing can make a whole lot of sense. Try and do so every morning, or whenever are your hours of choice. These days, I don’t wait for assignments or guaranteed pay to start on anything. Of course, anyone who embarks on a blog needs to find a way it can work for the reader as well as himself but it’s one of a bunch of ways of ensuring that, each day, I actually write: pace Descartes, scribo ergo sum, you might say. I used to think that writing “on spec” was an insult to the writer and, this may well have been an effect of the web, now not so much. Even if the writing has no destination, it’s rare that it is ever wasted, but more on that particular topic another day. The point is I feel a whole lot better when I do and so, if you call yourself a writer, will you if you remember this most essential of the writer’s commandments: write. Whatever you do, whatever are the tasks on your plate, write.

Noah Richler is a writer and broadcaster. His book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada won the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He blogs for Wordfest and his column,“The Writing Life,” appears here and on


1 Comment

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One response to “The Writing Life (6) Why the Web?

  1. Noah: Next time you are in Calgary, I would be happy to buy you lunch and explain both my reading and blogging (Anne Green will have to come to officiate, of course). And once this blog his been up and running for a while, as a friend of WordFest, I promise to attempt a post on the issue — to be published if it passes Anne-Nicole’s critical eye, of course.

    Meanwhile, those who read your post should pay attention to the sentence: “If you are a writer, or call yourself one, then the thing you have to do most, is write.” To which I would only add “and then find someone to read.”

    I am looking forward to buying lunch. 🙂


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